Lent 4 Year B: Numbers 21;4-9; Psalm 107:1-3,17-22, 12; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21
Let us pray – Holy God: Open our eyes to your presence. Open our ears to your call. Open our hearts to your love. Amen.
Today we are in the middle of our annual Lenten journey. This 4th Sunday of Lent, is often referred to as Laetare Sunday, from the Latin word meaning “rejoice.” We are invited to rejoice and to enter more deeply into the mystery of God’s grace, mercy, and love.
Our gospel contains one of the most quoted citations used on banners, on books, on posters, and bumper stickers, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” We rejoice because this single verse reminds us that the heart of the Gospel is God’s love and our belief. But there’s more to today’s Gospel than that. Our reading opens with words that seem somehow out of place, as we have been dropped in the middle of a conversation. To understand our Gospel pericope, it is good to place it within the wider context of John 3. In the beginning verses of this chapter, Nicodemus, the Pharisee approached Jesus at night. Nicodemus acknowledged Jesus as someone who had come from God because of all the miraculous signs he performed. Jesus gets to the heart of the matter by responding with firm truth: “…no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus, thinking literally and physically, cannot process or make sense of these words. Jesus continues the conversation teaching Nicodemus about the need to be born of the Spirit, but Nicodemus is still perplexed. Jesus laments that Nicodemus cannot seem to grasp such a heavenly concept and then recalls the moment in our first lesson from the Book of Numbers which Nicodemus would have known to illustrate his point. Jesus draws a parallel between the way that Moses lifted up the serpent on a pole to heal the Israelites and the way that he too, as the Son of Man, will be lifted up. For Jesus, both images—the serpent and the cross—are reminders of the saving action of God.
And in looking upon Jesus, we too, like the Israelites, must face our own sin and trust in God’s provision. Without that, we cannot see Jesus for who he truly is. We must look up. In this gospel, John suggests that what keeps us from looking up is our preference to live in the shadows. We hide behind the things we trust – power, greed, pride, authority, security, comfort – instead of putting our full trust in God. Leaving the shadows, stepping out of darkness means being seen for all that we are most notably those aspects we’d prefer to hide. And isn’t that what Lent demands of us?– If we want to live into the life God promises for us, then we need to look at our lives directly, seeing the good and bad – the pain and the hope mingled together. We have to, at some point, face our own sin – our own mistakes – our own brokenness.– It has been said, that, “Our hearts must be broken first for the word of God to fall in the cracks.” God didn’t send his son to the world to condemn or judge the world. Instead, he came as the light of the world to save us, as our gospel proclaims.
So much of life seems like an ongoing task of finding the light in the darkness. I know that’s how this last year has felt. On Thursday, the world noted the one year anniversary of the World Health Organization’s official declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated shutdowns, including this Cathedral building.
There is something to be said for noting anniversaries; they are important as they anchor the human experience, provide meaning and context to events that impact the individual, families, communities, nations, and importantly people of faith. Marking important moments of our past allow us to claim times that bind and unite us together with one another and to God. We can experience a variety of emotions, and when we are our best selves, we have the capacity to reflect, grieve, celebrate, remember, recommit, and hopefully learn to be better.
We have lived in a pandemic state for a year and in the process, we have lost over 532,000 of our fellow sisters, brothers, and siblings in this country. None of us imagined how long and how painful this time would be. And with the backdrop of a health crisis, a new generation has been exposed to the reality that institutional and societal structures of inequality continue to keep us separated one from another – racial, political, economic, cultural, and more. We continue to look for the light in our darkness even as the hope of multiple vaccines is dampened by disparities in access and distribution. Fractures that we as a nation have tried to bury are now more visible – brought into the light.
These issues are not new. The denial of equal rights connects us to another anniversary of the past week, that of the 56th anniversary of Bloody Sunday — March 7, 1965, when civil rights marchers were brutally beaten by law enforcement officers on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge. The day became a turning point in the fight for voting rights. Footage of the march broadcast across the country helped galvanize support for passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This year’s commemoration was the first without John Lewis, who up to his death, encouraged us all to engage in good trouble, necessary trouble when faced with injustice anywhere. For what we don’t learn from our past we are destined to repeat.
And yesterday, many took to the streets remembering the senseless death of Breonna Taylor whose life was tragically cut short, as they called for justice, accountability, and continued reform between law enforcement and communities.
While each of these anniversaries has touched us this year to different degrees, the most personal anniversary for me, is that of losing Bishop Barbara Clementine Harris who joined the saints a year ago yesterday. The first female bishop of the Anglican communion, Bishop Harris served as suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts from 1989 to 2002 and assisting bishop here in the Diocese of Washington from 2003 to 2007. Active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, she registered voters in Mississippi and participated in a portion of the 50mile march from Selma to Montgomery. Bishop Harris was a self-proclaimed advocate for, “the least, the lost and the left out.” Sounds a lot like what we are called to as followers of Jesus. She wrote, “If we can believe that Jesus, who died, rose again from the dead,…then we can, in peace, give over those who have died—known and unknown—to a loving, compassionate and ever-merciful God who has prepared for us a better home than this Good Friday world.”
In all that has happened over this year, the words of our gospel still ring true: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” The work of these last weeks of our Lenten journey is acceptance of God’s love for us – God’s divine presence in our lives. Today we are called to behold what God has done, is doing, and will do for you and me in the cross of Christ. On this fourth Sunday in Lent when we are to rejoice, let us open our hearts and listen to the promises of our loving God. Amen.